One of the restored temples in Pathra village Image Credit: Supplied

The hot sun overhead doesn’t deter a wiry young man as he darts between pillars. The silent temple walls have begun fraying again but it’s not difficult to notice the intricate terracotta carvings. And lovingly, Dipak Mahapatra runs his hand over them, tracing their outlines with his fingers.

This is one of the Shiva temples from amongst a cluster that this forgotten, dusty village is dotted with. The domed terracotta exterior is typical of Bengal architecture, arches reflective of Islamic influence, and the intricate wall carvings recall the art of Odisha. After all, this village of Pathra used to be a stop on the pilgrimage trail from Bengal to Odisha.

Dipak Mahapatra explains the history of the temples

His voice full of pride, Mahapatra narrates the history of the temples and how he is part of a mission now to preserve them.

It wasn’t always like this and he blushes as he recalls the days when a teenager he would often carry away stones and debris from some of these crumbling or dilapidated walls. He recalls the surprise that later turned to anger at a young bespectacled man who would chide him for doing so. “This is your heritage,” he would say to the young boy, “Look after it, preserve it. Instead you are destroying it.”

“Deep respect has replaced that anger and indignation today. It is Yassinda” – his elder brother – “that I have to thank for illuminating my mind and vision,” he says.

Yassin Pathan has spent his meagre earnings to campaign for the conservation of the temples.

Today, Yassin Pathan is a frail man, plagued with numerous health problems. Sitting in his modest office next to his house in Hathihalka village in the Midnapore district of West Bengal, Pathan remembers his early contact with the temples.

As a teenager Pathan, who was born in a farming family in the mainly Muslim village of Hathihalka, often wondered about the temple cluster that dotted the predominantly Hindu village of Pathra, which lay beyond the Kansai River.

On his way to school he would pass these temples. Decaying and crumbling but still majestic, the Hindu temples were built of lime and stucco with intricate terracotta carvings. There being so many, they had to have some forgotten historical significance. They were not just some run of the mill ones randomly built, and by some passerby. Pathan wondered about the people who had built them. They must have been people of means, he imagined, the temples spoke of power and sophisticated culture. And equally, they had now lost their significance.

Often, Pathan would find local people carrying off bricks and stones from there when they wanted to build a home or a shop.

As Pathan grew, so did his curiosity. He found himself drawn to the temples in his spare time, in violation of an unwritten but accepted code whereby Muslims refrained from visiting the Hindu village and vice versa. There were two main temple complexes in the village of Pathra, and increasingly the faded beauty of the temples grew on him – a Muslim. He would lightly but persistently scrape the dirt from a pillar and in due course the carving of a maiden or a flower would reveal itself.

Most importantly, it made Pathan wonder about his culture and heritage; after all, this too was a part of his village and people. He began researching them, avidly reading whatever material he chanced upon.

In due course, Pathan dropped out of school, unable to find the resources to continue his education. He took up a job as a peon in the school but his passion and love for the temples remained.

Pathra has a unique history, the hinterland to the once-famed ancient port of Tamralipi from where ships laden with goods from the Orient set sail for the shores of Venice. In due course, by the 17th and 18th centuries, it had come under the sway of the Nawabs of Bengal-Bihar, Aliwardi Khan. Khan employed a Hindu accountant named Bidyananda Ghoshal. He became popular with the Nawab and won his trust. He slowly started building temples using funds from the state treasury. When the Nawab found this out he was incensed and ordered Ghoshal be put to death. An elephant was brought to trample on Ghoshal – this was the prevalent mode of execution then – but when it lifted its foot it refused to place it on the supine Ghoshal. He was pardoned. Along with his cousin he embarked on another temple-building spree. The village earned the name of ‘Pathra’, meaning escape from the elephant’s foot.

Pathan knew that this precious heritage of his village had to be preserved and he dreamt of making his village great again. He began by mobilising the village youth to start a cleanup campaign for the temples. Simultaneously, he began illuminating people on the importance and history of the temples, chiding those who came to carry off bricks and stones. He was often rebuked for being a Muslim who was trying to interfere with Hindu, and in his own community Pathan was scorned for trying to preserve Hindu heritage and called an infidel.

Undeterred, he continued and many rallied to his call, including Mahapatra, and that’s how the Pathra Archeological Preservation Committee, which included both Hindus and Muslims, came about. From one of those who pilfered bricks from the temple, Mahapatra became Pathan’s right-hand man, always at his beck and call in the campaign to save the temples of Pathra.

There has been no looking back since. Pathan lobbied with local village authorities and political parties, he painstakingly wrote letters to authorities in both Kolkata and Delhi – even to the president. He made trips to Kolkata and Delhi, paying for all of them from his own pocket, and there were times he slept on the platforms in Delhi because of a lack of funds to rent a hotel room.

It took time and a lot of running around but finally Pathan’s efforts paid off. Grants were released for restoration of the temples and it came under the purview of the Archeological Survey of India, the premier organisation for the protection of Indian cultural heritage under the Ministry of Culture. Former President Pranab Mukherjee, who was then the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, sanctioned Rs2 million (Dh112,000) for the restoration of these temples. By 2006, 17 temples out of 34 had been totally repaired.

But Pathan’s contribution did not end there. In 1961, his work unearthed an exquisite antique idol of a Jain deity in a pond near one of the temples in the complex. Today, that idol is housed in the Calcutta University museum.

In the 1990s, he also initiated Durge Puja, the most important religious festival of Bengalis in the Durga Dalan, the temple complex where the festival used to take place a century earlier but had been discontinued hence.

More recently, the Indian Ministry of Culture sanctioned Rs.43.7 million for the restoration of the rest of the temples and for the acquisition of 10 acres of land from the local peasants and villagers to create a tourist hub. Simply restoring the temples would not be enough and the hot humid climate required constant maintenance and upkeep. The picturesque scenery, the historical heritage and the cultural attraction of the place is a good lure for tourists and income from tourism would help the maintenance of the temples and provide local employment.

Twenty eight of the 34 temples there are today under the supervision of the ASI. Eighteen temples have been fully restored. While service is no longer held save in one, the temples are a fine specimen of Bengal’s heritage and architecture.

While most of the temples are dedicated to Shiva, there are others dedicated to Vishnu and the nine plants. Adjacent to the Shiva complex is a smaller complex dedicated to Durga, where Pathan has restarted celebrations. That is crumbling, yet to be restored, but contains fine etchings.

At the Rashmancha that formed a beautiful roundabout in days long gone by, one can detect the creeping British influence in the form of male sepoy figures. Beyond them lies the Kansai River, now a sliver of its earlier self.

The temples tell tales of lost glory, of craftsmen and pride and piety; today they stand brooding, mysterious, full of knowledge of yesteryears.

Pathan’s small office is stacked with different awards he has been conferred with for his efforts at preserving a part of the country’s historical legacy, including a 1994 Kabir Award presented by the President of India for national harmony.

The road leading up to the temple has the mandatory ASI sign that declares the temples to be “Protected Monuments of national importance” and that “whoever destroys, removes, injures, alters, defaces, imperils or misuses the monument shall be punishable”.

But Pathan remains an unhappy, disillusioned person. He is sick and worn out from all the running around he has had to do, his meagre resources depleted by the day.

As land acquisition has become a contested issue in India now, local authorities have refused to facilitate the acquisition of land by the ASI. No steps have been initiated for the establishment of a tourist hub, many temples remain unrestored and those that have been restored are slowly but surely showing signs of renewed decay.

The ASI pleads helpless while villagers, eager to give up land for employment opportunities, beset Pathan with queries about delay in land acquisition. His committee stands stoically by him but doubts have started to creep in. It was a lifetime of struggle but without much to show ultimately, a dream which is far too slow in materialising. And he is running out of hope.

As he pores over phone numbers, deciding to make one more trip to Delhi with his frail health, his ceaseless efforts may yet bear fruit.